Thursday, February 02, 2023

With the COVID-19 pandemic continuing to blaze a path of destruction, it is easy to measure the misfortune by the number of deaths it has caused and ignore the rising prevalence of mental illness. Three months into this seemingly uncontrollable crisis, one question demands our attention: How do we mitigate the problems that we can control?

Whether due to economic loss, social isolation or constant COVID-19 media coverage, there has been a major increase in reports of mental pressure in the past months. People have reported a loss of incentive to follow a routine and have had trouble alleviating excess worry. In a recent Healthline survey, nearly half of the respondents reported some level of depression or anxiety, a notable 13% increase from past percentages.

In response to these challenges, freelance graphic designer and Teaneck resident Ari Solomon, social media content creator Eli Jonah Karls and Grand Rapids Griffins ice hockey player Joseph Veleno created the Celly Forward Challenge, a campaign that has provided mental health advocacy amid the COVID-19 crisis. “Celly,” short for “celebration,” is a term used in hockey to denote the incredible euphoria and relief felt after scoring a goal. This simple yet delightful feeling inspired the team to liken mental health struggles to those of an athletic competition, where one can always work toward an end goal worth celebrating.

This initiative has gained much influence, thanks to its growing online and social media presence. Athletes and other public personalities like Nick Suzuki (Montreal Canadians), Kirby Dach (Chicago Blackhawks) and YouTube sensation On the Bench have accepted the challenge, providing raffle opportunities to followers who tag their friends and repost on Instagram. With the help of these supporters and a passionate team, the Celly Forward Challenge Instagram page has gained over 40,000 impressions after just two weeks. It has encouraged and generated donations to organizations like Anxiety and Depression Association of America, National Alliance on Mental Illness, Mental Health America and OHEL Regional Family Centers. What started as an idea has helped direct attention to often-overlooked mental illnesses, which, according to Veleno, “will still be in full force as people face the new reality of life.”

When the pandemic was at its peak and the media was filled with reports of spiking daily death counts, it was difficult to keep up with all those who had endured life-changing losses. For example, co-founder Solomon lost his grandfather on the Purim before quarantine.

“My mother had to mourn in isolation,” he said, “and it hurt me to watch her go through that type of mourning. It brought me even more pain to realize that so many members of my community and the world at large were experiencing the same thing.”

Having met in a chavruta in YU, Solomon and Karls shared a passion for this issue, also bonding over an admiration for social media and its ability to reach people on a larger scale. “We would constantly talk about ways that we could do something to help our community,” Solomon remarked. Karls’ high school best friend, Joe Veleno, who in 2018 was the 30th overall pick for the Detroit Red Wings, soon joined the team, helping grow its popularity by reaching out to fellow athletes and other celebrities. The men are now bound together by their mission to promote peace and mindfulness in these often chaotic times.

The Celly Forward movement has been gaining much momentum, shedding light on the true significance of mental well-being. According to Solomon, “Death is not the only way to lose someone, but it is the only uncontrollable way to lose someone. People’s entire lives are being torn apart by COVID-19 in so many ways, from losing a family member to struggling with the illness itself to watching their livelihoods disappear.”

While physical recovery is in the hands of physicians, the Celly Forward Challenge sees a future of psychological recovery. According to Karls, “We need to fight [mental illness] with the same ferocity as we are using against the physical virus. Through modest donations and simple acts of kindness, our collective efforts can usher in this future.”

Solomon asserted that, for some, attaining peace of mind can be as simple as “finding something that you love,” whether it be sports or writing, and making that “your outlet for however many hours of relief it might give you. It’s okay to not be okay all the time and struggles don’t just go away in a day, but even a short amount of relief and happiness will lead to good things.”

“People who suffer from mental illness aren’t mentally present,” Solomon added. “They feel like they lost their purpose, personalities, families and jobs. Human life isn’t just about being physically alive, but also mentally alive and happy and productive, and we have the power within our grasp to save lives, even after the physical virus is gone.”

Whether by helping ourselves, or giving to those who can’t help themselves, everyone has the ability to make a difference in this time of seemingly unmanageable problems. It follows the ethos of the Celly Forward Challenge to become part of the solution.

For more information about the Celly Forward Challenge, follow their Instagram account @cellyforwardchallenge; visit their website, www.cellyforwardchallenge.com; or email Solomon at [email protected]

Josh Gindi is a graduate of Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School in Livingston and is interning at The Jewish Link this summer.

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